Beijing needs to play smart and dirty against Microsoft

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 June, 2008, 12:00am

The [anti-monopoly] investigation reportedly focuses on the high price of computer operating systems such as Microsoft's Windows platform and other software being sold on the mainland by multinational software suppliers.

A set of the Windows operating system plus Microsoft Office software can cost up to 7,000 yuan on the mainland, making it more expensive than a personal computer, a source told Agence France-Presse.

SCMP, June 19

Cast your mind back about a year ago and you may remember seeing a photo on the front page of this newspaper of an enormous 416-foot motor yacht, which called here after a visit to Shanghai.

It was called the Octopus, it was purportedly worth US$200 million and, among other gadgets, this vessel boasted a remote control undersea explorer, two (yes, two) helicopter pads, a recording studio, a cinema, a basketball court and a 12-person mini submarine.

The Octopus was owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and it was only one of his three yachts at the time.

At the time, I say, because may the time come when the world is no longer prepared to bestow such enormous fortunes on people who have done so little to earn their wealth, which I say not as a closet Marxist but as someone who entirely believes in decent returns on invested capital.

Microsoft is not a brain trust of clever people with innovative ideas.

It is a lawyers' creation built on the clenched fist that the United States government is so ready to brandish in the face of people in other countries, who dare question the copyright privileges that American copyright holders think God has bequeathed on them.

I regard the presence of Paul Allen's tasteless whale of a barge in these waters as a direct insult to all the people on whom he imposes its presence.

'Hah-hah-hah, suckers, look at what I managed to squeeze out of you,' the Octopus says. 'I can make you pay for it because the next boat along from my country is an aircraft carrier and you would never even dare say 'boo' to one. We have the muscle, we run the show, and you will just have to pay up for Microsoft bloatware when I tell you to.'

Examine Microsoft's history for a moment. The basic interface was invented at Xerox, the operating system is a copy of something I previously knew as CP/M, the Excel spreadsheet was a late entry onto the scene of an idea pioneered by VisiCalc and Lotus 1-2-3, as was PowerPoint, and the Web browser was someone else's idea too. About the only thing I personally identify with Microsoft is the fix-up patch.

What this company did to grow so big was take advantage of a silly mistake by the computer giant at the time, IBM, which did not insist that it should have exclusive rights to an operating system it had bought from Microsoft. IBM set the worldwide standard for personal computers with that system but Microsoft ran away with the spoils.

It has since devoted its greatest efforts to retaining these spoils, backed by the US Congress and US State Department, and in the process has turned itself into something that more closely resembles a private law firm with a single in-house client than it does a collection of software engineering nerds.

It has even managed to finagle things so that its wares are treated as art and are hence protected by copyright (protection for 90 years after the death of the author) rather than engineering advances and hence protected by patent (protection for only 20 years after issue of patent). PowerPoint is just like Winnie the Pooh, you see.

But the effective monopoly that this Washington-funded protection has bestowed on Microsoft has long annoyed European bureaucrats. They have successfully sued Microsoft (in their own courts) on several occasions for abusing dominant market position and have managed to sting it with some very big fines.

Now we're told the bureaucrats in Beijing want to try the same thing with their own monopoly investigation of Microsoft. I applaud, but I think they need to keep one thing in mind. Microsoft's market position around the world is not so much its own achievement as the doing of a US government that insists the whole world comply with its views on copyright.

These views are heavily skewed towards the interests of copyright holders, and Beijing will never change the stance of US congressmen on this matter, particularly as they are already screaming foul about the US trade deficit with China.

The only thing to do, therefore, is adopt the same blinkered, cynical approach and make big righteous noises of support for copyright protection while continuing to allow virtually universal faking of Microsoft products in the mainland.

That's what you call the biter bit and I'm all for it. It's the proper response to the in-your-face affront of things like Paul Allen's boat, and if any monopoly probe of Microsoft is part of the show then you'll find me cheering.